The River & Rowing Museum celebrated the instalment of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning’s ‘Unbeaten Boat’ last Friday with an exclusive Q&A with the athletes and their coach, Robin Williams, chaired by Olympic medallist rower, Greg Searle. The discussion reflected on the huge success of Glover and Stanning’s pair, which saw them win Gold at London 2012, and then again at Rio 2016, without losing a single race in five years.
Though the duo went on to achieve an unprecedented level of success for British women’s rowing, Helen and Heather recalled on Friday that they first partnered up somewhat by chance. At the end 2009, whilst the rest of the team were on training camp, Glover and Stanning ended up in a boat together as neither wanted to train in a single on that cold, wintry day. Their coach then suggested they take their pair to GB trials in 2010, where they came fifth and broke into the Team GB squad.
On seeing Helen and Heather in a boat for the first time their coach Robin Williams said, “My first impression was I was distinctly unimpressed. I didn’t know at the time and for quite a while that Helen had been barely rowing for 2 years.” Helen found her way into rowing at the age of 21 after being selected for a Sporting Giants scheme. Having never been in a boat before, she was picked from 3,000 young women after excelling in the fitness tests. Helen said, “I had this sense of, this is too good an opportunity to miss and someone is telling me that I could make it to the Olympics, and I applied myself in a way I’ve never applied myself to anything before.”
The pair won their first silver medal at 2010 at the World Championships in New Zealand, which Robin described as “an amazing achievement in such a short time.” They continued to go from strength to strength, winning gold at two World Rowing Cup regattas the following year and narrowly missing out on first place at the 2011 World Championships, only 0.1 of a second behind the winning crew.
In 2012, the pair were given a brand new boat for the London 2012 Olympics: the iconic ‘Unbeaten Boat’, which would go on to win every race it was entered into. Helen told the Herald, “I remember when we got the boat it was just before London and it was quite symbolic actually, because it was like a belief in Heather and myself, an investment in us and in our training, making sure we had the best equipment. More than just the fact that we had a lovely new sleek boat to row in, it was what it meant; it meant that people believed we were worth investing in and that gives you a sense of confidence.”
Despite its reputable title, the Unbeaten Boat did come to some damage along the way. The day before the pair’s London Olympic final, the team decided that they should take the speed sensor off the bottom of the boat. The man tasked with the job managed to put a small hole in the bottom of the boat with his screw driver, to which Robin recalled, “After going as white as sheet he did a very professional repair job!”
Helen and Heather’s gold medal at London 2012 was a momentous achievement for both British women’s rowing and Team GB as a whole, both the first gold for GB at the games and the first British women’s rowing gold ever. Helen described to the Herald, “It was an amazing moment, and the beauty of rowing is that you don’t have to cross the line and immediately speak to someone. Heather and I got a chance to just be in the middle of the lake, with screaming fans all around and Team GB supporters, and just be us two. No one could get to us for a little while because we were on the water, and we could have a quiet moment to say well done and how much we enjoyed the journey together.”
Helen and Heather went on to once again win gold in the Rio 2016 Olympics before retiring from competitive rowing. Helen described to the Herald that although she felt fortunate to have had such a successful career, it is the relationships and the journey that she values the most. She said, “In my professional career, the thing that stands out is that I had a fantastic coach and a fantastic teammate. Those things you just can’t replace and I would never change. I think one thing that having those things made me do is enjoy the process rather than just the outcome, and although we got the outcome I think I would have a lot of regrets if I looked back and realised I didn’t enjoy the journey.”
She continued, “That’s the thing that I’m most proud of. It’s not in my nature to be particularly concerned with how much I enjoy things; I was very serious and studious with my rowing. But [Heather and Robin] brought out a side of me that was checking, am I enjoying this, am I happy? Without that, I would’ve had 10 years on the team, miserable but winning. The times that I look back on are not when we won — they were times in training when we were laughing, they were times on training camps enjoying ourselves. Those are the memories that I will take away.”
The Gala at the River & Rowing Museum, which included a 3 course dinner for guests, was the opening to the Rowing Futures Conference held at the museum on Saturday. Featuring speakers such as Brendan Purcell, Performance Director for the GB Rowing Team and triple Olympic gold medallist Andy Triggs-Hodge OBE, the conference focused on the future of the sport from elite to entry level.
Speaking about the growth of rowing, and particularly of recent achievements of women in the sport, Helen said, “Our success is only a product of what’s come before, and all the women who’ve put in the hours of work and training. Without that success, we wouldn’t have built the platform that Heather and I enjoyed. And also. I think that there’s a movement across the board of different sports to give women and girls the confidence to try new sports at grassroots. The more girls and women you have at grassroots level, the sharper the top end is going to be. They need the numbers, and I think there’s a lot of positivity around women in sport.”
Helen was also intent to express the accessibility of rowing on all levels, regardless of age or experience. “One of the beauties of rowing is that it’s a non-impact sport,” she told the Herald. “It’s got an incredible cardiovascular effect, it’s got an incredible strength effect — if you want to be strong and fit for the rest of your life, row. You’re not going to get that degeneration of the joints. Yes, you need to look after your back but you can do that by having a really strong core. Some of the fittest people in a rowing club will be its older, more senior members, and actually I’ve spoken to a lot of people in their 60’s and 70’s who said they started rowing at that point.”
Helen herself continues to row, getting out in her single on the river whenever she can. For those interested in getting involved in the sport, she encouraged, “Go down to your local rowing club and you’ll see how friendly people are. You don’t have to own a boat, you can go and join a rowing club and they will have lots of boats there. They’re friendly places that are not some exclusive club. I would really encourage you to go and give it a try and it really is much more accessible than I had assumed when I first started.”
After Friday evening’s interview, Helen and Heather were presented with their oars from Rio, and Heather also received her London 2012 oar. Sarah Posey, Director of the River & Rowing Museum, said, “It’s great to see so many of you here and so many key figures from the world of women’s rowing. We’re tremendously excited about that as we are about the launching of this display and installation of the Unbeaten Boat which celebrates women’s involvement in the sport. Tomorrow’s conference we will hear from two rowers on their preparation for Tokyo 2020 and about the sport’s new format.”
The evening also marked the launch of the museum’s Tokyo-on-Thames project, a programme of activities to celebrate the upcoming Olympic games and to promote health and wellbeing. As part of the project, the community will have the chance to try indoor rowing and take part in a virtual row to Tokyo. The museum will also be holding an indoor rowing championships in the Thames Room in July, encouraging both adults and young people alike to get involved in the sport.
We asked Chair of British Rowing Mark Davies about what he’d like to say to the young people who have just started their rowing journey. He said, “What we want to instil in everyone is a life-long enjoyment and passion for the sport. One of the key things from British Rowing is to ensure that the journey from getting involved in the sport is continuous and not to drop it after you get past your competitive point. We want them to maintain their affiliation and involvement with the sport so that they can support the young people coming through. That is a bit of change to what has happened in the past and it is not just in rowing.”
The ‘Unbeaten Boat’ is now on display at the River & Rowing Museum.